The slightly annoying/ welcome return of Sledgehammer Sarcasm

Joe Lycett appeared on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg (PA)
Joe Lycett appeared on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg (PA)

You know, I think you should just give up on this issue of ES Magazine right now and go and get Good Housekeeping instead. Honestly. I think you’ll get way more out of some pictures of sofas, 15-minute suppers and DIY cheats than anything we’ve got to offer. Much more exciting. What? I’m being serious!

You can feel it can’t you: the blood lightly boiling, the sudden desire to sneer ‘Okay, very clever’, the stock reactions to what we were all told as children is the lowest form of wit. But so long as I maintain my poker face, there is nothing you can do. The anger will continue to rise. My smirk will continue to widen. An explosion will follow. And it won’t be me exploding because there’s no effective way to combat the form of conversational gaslighting that is sledgehammer sarcasm.

Historically, sledgehammer sarcasm has largely been an American trait that, like so many US things, Brits consider to be a somewhat vulgar, subtlety-lacking take on something they are much better at. But if the reaction to Joe Lycett’s now-legendary turn on the maiden voyage of Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg is anything to go by, it is seeing a sharp uptick in popularity, set to be deployed more frequently as an effective weapon in the war against populist rhetoric.

You saw it, right? Or at the very least you saw the clip on social media. When he gushed, grinning, about every last promise that Liz Truss made, punctuating said gushing with applause and, ‘I’m actually very right wing, and I love it.’ Emily Thornberry smirked to his left. Kuenssberg desperately tried to stop her debut descending into farce. Once it had finished airing, nobody talked about anything else. Liberal Twitter hailed him as a hero, the Daily Mail put it on the front page, calling it ‘a fresh anti-Tory bias storm’: the problem being that, when printed in ink, it was difficult to convey the sentiment beneath his comments.

‘No, no, I was being serious!’ protested Lycett a couple of days later. More fury.

Lycett was, obviously, not being serious. But as long as he ostensibly maintains his stance, there is nothing his enemies can do. And in doing so, he made you realise how the standard format of political interviews over the past few years — MP says something patently untrue and wholly unachievable; interviewer says ‘this is patently untrue and wholly unachievable’; MP says, ‘Oh yes it is’; repeat to fade, and now the weather — could be disrupted. Imagine, for example, if Donald Trump’s suggestion that the coronavirus could be fought by injecting puréed Mexican immigrants into you blood (or something) had been met with applause from the White House press room when he was president. Or if, at Matt Hancock’s insistence that the UK’s Covid-19 testing capabilities were ‘world-leading’, Robert Peston had immediately stood up and said, ‘You know what, I now see that you’re doing brilliantly: I say we cut this short and you can just get on with doing brilliantly.’

What riposte could they, and so many others like them, possibly offer up? They can’t pretend to take such responses as sincere, because they’d look like dickheads. They can’t say ‘Come on now, this is serious’ because they know that they themselves are not being serious. They can’t explode in anger because… well because politics. The only thing to do is to rethink their entire approach, which, you would hope, might involve a smidgen less obvious fib-telling, and a lot less running down the clock. Sledgehammer sarcasm could — being serious — change everything. Maybe, just maybe, it really might, as well as the lowest form of wit, be the highest form of intelligence.

(Apologies, by the way, to the good people of Good Housekeeping magazine. I love what you d o, to the extent that I have a subscription. What? No really! I do…)